researching poetry publishers

by heather hughes | December 2016

Among the many truths universally acknowledged is that a poet with a manuscript is in want of a publisher. This may be true not only for those people (like me) who are dreaming and scheming about that first book acceptance, but also for more established poets with one or more books already in the world. Uncertainty is part of the process of getting from manuscript to book, but the two things I know that I can control are what I send and where I send it. For innumerable reasons—not the least of which are contest and open reading period fees—it’s impractical to scatter a manuscript to every publisher out there. The field must be limited somehow. The conventional wisdom is not unlike that given to college applicants: make a list of dream presses that might seem unattainable and a list of match presses that seem more within reach.

In tandem with manuscript cleanup, I’ve been researching publishers and researching publishers and researching more publishers to come up with my lists. Perhaps this sounds familiar… I was many months into the process before I noticed that I was considering what publishers might want and how my work might fit, but not balancing those important concerns with what I, as the poet, might want or how my publisher might fit into my long-haul creative career goals. Then I had to admit that, yes, I have poet career goals. Maybe because poetry is often considered an avocation, it took effort to proactively shift my thinking in that direction, to center the question what do I want from my publisher? The data didn’t change, but my frame for approaching it did.

Every poet’s priorities and needs will be different—and these concerns are not static over time; they can vary based on projects, life circumstances, and a host of other considerations. In no particular order, here are some tips and questions for both starting and refining publisher research:

·         Look at one’s own poetry bookshelf. Who publishes contemporary poets I admire? Who publishes work that I want to see my own in dialogue with? If looking at a contest, do winners ever publish again with the same press? What publishers have production values in line with my expectations for my book?

·         Look at the poetry section of a few bookstores. What publishers are represented? Are local or regional authors in stock? How much do I value the possibility that someone can walk into a store and encounter my book?

·         Look at online retailers. Most books will be listed on Amazon. Does a publisher have “Look Inside” as an option? (Brand new releases may not yet be active; check titles that are several months old for more reliable information.) Are books listed on IndieBound?

·         Look at industry magazine ads. Which publishers consistently advertise in P&W or Writer’s Chronicle, for example? Where are the ads placed? Are they color or black-and-white? Do they include book jackets?

·         Look at review attention and Best Of lists. Are books by authors at various career stages being reviewed? Does the publisher archive reviews on their website? Are review sites, literary sites, journals, or individuals paying attention to this publisher’s list? If so, does it happen with consistency, or does it focus primarily on specific authors?

·         Look at award nominees. Do authors from a publisher make it to semi-finalist or finalist lists? Do they list awards on their websites? Do books that win major awards indicate it on the jacket?

Underlying each of these items is a single question: How important is this to my ambitions?

The list above is nowhere near exhaustive. And each of these items only matters to the extent that it lines up with the poet’s goals—some might not be relevant at all, some might be essential and spawn a longer list of questions. Ideally, they lead to both dream and reach lists of publishers that would make a good home for both book and poet.

heather hughes is a contributing writer for Mass Poetry who hangs her heart in Somerville and Miami. Poems recently appear or are forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Queen Mob's Tea House, and Vinyl Poetry, among other journals. She MLA-ed in foreign literature at Harvard University Extension and MFA-ed at Lesley University. Her other adventures include working in academic publishing and creating letterpress prints. She never outgrew her science fiction & fantasy obsession. Find her online at